The sentencing of a notorious hate promoter in Toronto last week is, in some ways, evidence that our country’s laws and norms against targeting identifiable groups are working.
James Sears, editor of Your Ward News, a propaganda sheet distributed periodically to 300,000 households in Toronto and area, was sentenced to two consecutive six-month terms in jail. His paper is filled with bigotry and hatred, especially targeting Jews, women and LGBTQ+ people. He is obsessed with the Rothschild family, denies the Holocaust, dabbles in bizarre racial theories and celebrates rape. One issue invited volunteers to join an Adolf Hitler Fan Club. He and a co-conspirator, publisher LeRoy St. Germaine, were found guilty in January of promoting hatred against women and Jews. St. Germaine is yet to be sentenced.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, among others, praised the judge’s sentence. In fact, the judge openly expressed his wish that he had the legal power to hand down a harsher sentence.
Unlike the United States, where constitutional freedoms make it legal to express almost anything but overt death threats or yelling fire in a crowded hall, Canada’s laws place limits on acceptable discourse. This is, it has seemed, a consensus position that we as a society have accepted as justifiable limits on our freedoms for the greater good. In practice, convictions on the basis of hate speech are exceedingly rare. More common are hearings and decisions via our network of human rights commissions, which provide a quasi-judicial recourse for victims. Neither of these systems is perfect. But cases like Sears’ indicate that, when necessary, they can have the appropriate outcomes.
We hesitate to call this good news, however. Justice may be served but, in the long run, what is gained? A happy ending would have been a society in which ideas like Sears’ are nonexistent. A more realistic world might be one in which some form of restorative justice is the sentence, some construction in which Sears and St. Germaine learn from their victims about the harm they have inflicted and perhaps come to see the humanity of the people they vilify. Instead, Sears will spend a year (or four months, depending on parole) stewing over what he doubtlessly interprets as some heinous injustice perpetrated against him by the imagined forces of evil. Justice is served, probably, but is the larger cause of social cohesion and mutual understanding?